Romanian Road Trip: Mountain Country

When I was young, I always wanted to go to the seaside on holiday in Romania and couldn’t understand why we had to follow the national tradition of a week at the seaside followed by a week in the mountains. Nowadays, however, I much prefer the mountains (at least in my home country – for beaches are pretty similar everywhere in Europe).

The first part of our road trip was heading north out of Bucharest up the picturesque Prahova Valley (particularly colourful at this time of year) to Braşov. We only stopped for lunch because both the cable car at Buşteni and the Peleş Palace in Sinaia were closed on a Tuesday, but if you ever go that way, you should stop and check out both. (By the way, the s with cedilla is pronounced ‘sh’).

Peles, the summer residence of the Romanian kings in the 19th/20th century. From gandul.info
The Sphinx, rock formation caused by the heavy winds at the top of the Bucegi mountains, accessible only on foot from the Busteni cable car.

We stayed a few days in Braşov, also known as Kronstadt in German, because its symbol is of a crown on an oak tree. Not to be confused with the Russian Kronstadt near St Petersburg, it was a bustling medieval and Renaissance town of craftsmen and merchants, where German, Hungarian and Romanian ethnicities lived together in something resembling harmony.

The coat of arms of the city on the town hall.

While it does not have the grand architecture of Sibiu (which is where the Austro-Hungarian aristocracy lived), it is still full of beautiful old buildings, some of them more renovated than others.

Nightfall in the main square of the Old Town, with the Hollywood-style lit-up sign of Brasov.
View of the city from behind the sign.

It is also home to one of the narrowest streets in Europe, appropriately known as ‘Rope Street’. Each window looking out onto the street has been decorated by a different artist.

I have a soft spot for Braşov, though, and not just because it has been the scene of many an escapade during my high school and university years (it is only 2 hours from Bucharest, so we went skiing or hiking nearly every other weekend). It is also surrounded by mountains, so in just a few minutes you can be in the forest and feel that you have left all the urban hustle and bustle behind you.

We stayed at a very nice hotel here too, in the Schei neighbourhood, which was just outside the Old Town walls and was traditionally the only place where Romanians were allowed to settle. This was the view from our balcony.

The weather was not as kind to us here as it was throughout the rest of our trip. It only rained a little bit, but there was cloud cover, which meant we didn’t get the best views of or from the mountains. And it was very cold for two days, with some snowfall, especially up in the ski resort Poiana Braşov, where I learnt to ski again as a grown-up after a ski accident in my childhood put an end to winter sports for me, as far as my parents were concerned.

A world away from the mellow autumnal landscape below.
All is well, however, when you can warm up your icy toes in a hot tub at the Hotel Sport.
Since it was out of season, we had the whole place practically to ourselves.

But it was the interplay of nature and architecture, as well as the friendly cats, which made us love Braşov.

Gate to the Old Town.
The tower of the famous Black Church in the background.
We kept passing this abandoned house on our way back to the hotel. I would love to renovate it and keep a few cats there. 

This is getting too long, so I will have to tell you about the next stage of our journey in a separate blog post. I had some hard choices to make about which route to take to Sibiu, where my younger son’s godparents live. I was initially planning to go via Sighişoara, which is the most beautiful medieval towns in Romania, but a bit farther away. In the end, time and other circumstances made us opt for another route. But, as you will see, we discovered a lesser-known treasure there as well.

One last fond look at Braşov. 

If you go there, try their Bulz (a sort of polenta and cheese mix rolled up into a ball) and their Papanaşi – enormous doughnuts traditionally served as a pair with blueberry jam and cream. Extremely filling – I can’t believe I used to be able to tackle those as a dessert. I now could barely finish one as a main course!

From retete.unica.ro

Friday Fun: Luxury Mountain Lodges

I think the Americans must have a different definition of mountain lodges to just about anyone else except the Swiss. Have a look at these! Certainly not the kind I will be coming back to rest in after skiing…

Ready to go canoeing? From Stonewood LLC.

Montana Magica hotel lodge in Chile, from Atlas Obscura.

A dreamy terrace to admire the view, from Style Estate.com

Swimming pools are of course always a bonus. From poolguide.com

When you are isolated on a mountain, you can afford to have big windows. From Once Upon a Better Home.

After a hard day of climbing mountains, isn’t this the perfect spot to come back to? From mountainventures.com

Friday Fun: Mountain Retreats

Last week, when we were covered in snow, I needed to escape to warmer climes, but the truth is I love nothing more than spectacular, remote mountain retreats… in countries which know how to cope with snow and access and heating!

Mountain cottage in Ogawayama, Japan. From Home Crux.

Anako Lodge in Switzerland, photo credit: Olivier Maire.

The interior of a mountain villa in Sri Lanka, thearksrilanka.com

Hot tubbing in the snow in Pestera, Romania, from Akasha Wellness Retreat.

The luxury end of the spectrum, Finca Paraiso in Costa Rica, from booking.com

Far more modest: the Hen House on Skye, from 15fiscavaig.co.uk

Friday Fun: Heading to the Alps

No matter what I say or do, I cannot forget about mountains and snow in the winter months. I miss them more than I can say, so here are some pictures to delight me (or to help me wallow in my misery).

Chamonix at night, from temmos.com

Thermal spa at Leukerbad in Switzerland, from Le Devoir.com

A summer shot, but still beautiful. Sankt Gallen in Switzerland. From Panoramio.

The Alps in autumn, from HG Wallpapers.com

My favourite vineyards, although the dream of owning one with a chateau recedes daily. From Lavaux.ch

But it’s the skiing I miss most. Chamonix once more, from chamonix.net

 

The Search

I looked around for beauty but I got distracted

by the grey rain streaks echoed on my kitten’s fur

as she sits all pensive on the window sill.

All I notice are water-stained window panes.

 

My brain fries synapses and skips seven beats.

She darts forth on sure-footed pads through the snow

like a lynx in the mountains I no longer have before me

to make up for the fault in my wiring.

 

I missed the deadline on dVerse Poets for the poetic prompt on anthropomorphism of beloved pets, but I am not sure that this poem would have been quite suitable for it anyway. So I am linking it instead to Open Link Night. Join me there for some poetic fun during this month of poetry celebration!

 

Friday Fun: A Place We Once Called Home

This is something I wrote a long time ago, on a very different blog.

My whole life seems to consist of being really happy in some wonderful places – and then having to tear myself away from them.   I love exploring new places but I also like settling in, making those places my own, getting that intimate connection with them that can only come from repetition and routine.  When it’s time to move on, I am excited about the new adventures I will have, but I am also sad to leave a certain part of myself behind.  With each encounter with a different country and culture, I become richer in experience, but somehow also poorer when I leave. 

It’s difficult to explain – but it’s like my soul has been bereft to a certain extent.  I keep the experience locked up somewhere tight within and remember it with such delight from time to time.  But the experience is unrepeatable.  Even if I go back to that country, it will never feel the same again.  If you go back as a tourist to a country where you were once resident, it can be exhilarating as long as you don’t think about it too closely.  Or you can feel shut out, a stranger once more.  It will certainly never again feel like home.

Last week, I had the opportunity to return to our village in France and took some pictures to try and describe the charm of the location (bearing in mind that these pictures do not cover all the seasons, only a sunny day in February).

Our home in France for 4 1/2 years.
Our home in France for 4 1/2 years, complete with climbing tree for Zoe cat.

Our close from the main road.
Our close from the main road.

The field we passed on our walk to school, often full of ponys grazing.
The field we passed on our walk to school, often full of ponys grazing.

The orchard where we could pick plums, apples, pears and quince.
The orchard where we could pick plums, apples, pears and quince.

'We live in the countryside,' my boys used to tell visitors, 'You will smell a lot of natural fertiliser.'
‘We live in the countryside,’ my boys used to tell visitors, ‘You will smell a lot of natural fertiliser.’

The view facing the other way, towards the Alps.
The view facing the other way, towards the Alps.

Friday Fun: Alpine Babies

Cute baby animals are just what the doctor ordered and part of my self-soothing programme. NB: when I say Alpine, I take it to mean any mountain range in Europe – Carpathians, Jura, Pyrenees etc.

Alpine Marmot sunning itself.
Alpine Marmot sunning itself. From Wikipedia.

Alpine bouquetin goats
Alpine bouquetin goats, from prenond.fr

Romanian bisons, from monitorulcj.ro
Romanian bisons, from monitorulcj.ro

 

Baby goat with a jumper.
Baby goat with a jumper, from modernfarmer.com

Lynx in the Jura, from ConiferousForest website.
Lynx in the Jura, from ConiferousForest website.

Another lynx mother and cubs, because they are my favourites.
Another lynx mother and cubs, because they are my favourites. From jura-tourisme.com

Wolf and cub, from zoo.ro
Wolf and cub, from zoo.ro

Wild boar piglets only a few days old explore their surroundings in the wildlife preserve near Ravensburg, Germany, on April 3, 2013. AFP PHOTO / FELIX KAESTLE GERMANY OUT (Photo credit should read Felix Kästle/AFP/Getty Images)
Wild boar piglets, Photo creditLFelix Kästle/AFP/Getty Images

Orphaned bear cub and his rescuer, from ccplus.ro
Orphaned bear cub and his rescuer, from ccplus.ro

Even peregrine falcons, one of the most fearsome hunters in the world, are cute as babies.
Even peregrine falcons, one of the most fearsome hunters in the world, are cute as babies. From Pinterest.

Friday Fun: Snow and Mountain Love

I am a snow bunny, an unashamed snow bunny (imagine this sung to the tune of An Englishman in New York). Admittedly, at times the memory of skiing is much sweeter when you are safely nestled beside a toasty fire, sipping mulled wine and reading a favourite book. I won’t be skiing this year, but I have plenty of wonderful memories…

This is my idea of heavenly powder... from OnTheSnow.com
This is my idea of heavenly powder… from OnTheSnow.com

Nope, I can't jump like that, but I keep on dreaming. From lasrehab.com
Nope, I can’t jump like that, but I keep on dreaming. From lasrehab.com

A corner of the French Alps formerly known as home.
A corner of the French Alps formerly known as home.

If you get bored of using your own legs for locomotion...
If you get bored of using your own legs for locomotion… Plus an indispensable finger over the camera lense!

Personally, I find snowshoeing more challenging than skiing...
Personally, I find snowshoeing more challenging than skiing…

Mont Blanc is a stunner from all angles.
Mont Blanc is a stunner from all angles.

And after the effort and the cold, relax the Savoyard or Swiss way, with a raclette in front of the fireplace.

From Tripadvisor.com
From Tripadvisor.com

Running Home

P1010699The mountains are closing in today.

On a clear day, just after a drop in temperature, they open up as endless as your life seems in childhood. On a day like this, when clouds display a full arsenal of grays, when rain is announced every few minutes, the mountains seem closer.  Too close.  They press against you, crush you, lock you in. You begin to understand the danger of the Alps. Ominous is a word created for that brief silence before the storm breaks.

So you start running. Mud, pebbles, asphalt: the terrain varies and so do your steps. What you cannot get used to is the running between borders.  After a lifetime of being punished for your nationality, of not being allowed in or out of countries, it is such a thrill to be able to weave your way in and out of France and Switzerland. A grey, moss-covered border stone dating from the 1870s is your only witness.

You moved to the area unwillingly the first time round. You had to give up a good job, family and friends, a good-sized house in the process of being slowly renovated, the language of your comfort. The children were fully dependent on you that first time, each day was a struggle with unfamiliarity. You couldn’t wait to get back ‘home’.

MountainsBut home had moved on, as had you. You found yourself struggling to fit in. You were still the alien, perhaps even more so with your new-found love for croissants and small coffees. You missed the extreme landscapes, the seasons. You remembered breathing in air so fresh that it rushed straight to your lungs in unadulterated delight.

Life has a way of playing with your emotions. Just when you are settled in again, when you have arranged your memories in a neatly labelled box to be put up in the attic, it is time to resurrect them.  You are going back to the space on the border for a second time. But this time it’s all different again. The children are older, your French is better. You continue working, but you are determined to make each minute in this wonderful location count. You are not going to leave this area again, regretting all that you didn’t do and see.

Home is a word you have bandied about far too often in your existence. You’ve believed you were at home in many places, with many people, but have you ever fully understood it? 

GrapesCould this be home now? You hardly dare to hope.

Yet there is a lilt in your peasant soul as you run through the fields, worrying about the harvest. 

The peaks and valleys, now green and pleasant, now eerily bare, mirror your own innerscapes. You surprise yourself with the sudden onset of storms, but you recognise a twin spirit.

If you weren’t so marked by years of taunting, you might almost think you are communing with nature.

Whether this is home or not, this is the best of you. Use this time wisely. Write it all down.